The Press and Private Lynch
Not all media were so quick to follow the Post's lead. Says Newsday's Craig Gordon, who was reporting from Doha, "It didn't pass the smell test. She's a 19-year-old supply clerk, and they made her sound like Rambo. I had no way to check it, and it didn't ring true." The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Newsweek also did not run stories about Lynch's heroic fight.
In truth, reporters covering the war were in a tough spot. Everyone interviewed for this story said it was impossible to confirm the Lynch story's details with anyone outside the government in those first days. "No reporters witnessed it," says Gordon. "It was frustrating." New York Times spokesman Toby Usnik said the paper "gave as full an account as possible." Paul Slavin, senior vice president of ABC News, says: "As with many stories, we were left with our sourcing being other government agencies. The whole war was characterized by reporting through straws. There were thirty tiny visions of what was going on on that battlefield at any time." Even reporters critical of the American coverage, such as Richard Lloyd Parry, who wrote one of the first stories about the rescue from the Iraqi doctors' perspective for the Times of London, says, "The telephones were down. American and Iraqi forces were still fighting over Nasiriyah. It would have been several days before anyone could make a sensible decision to go in there and check it out."
Still, many journalists say that news organizations should have acknowledged just how little they actually knew. The American news media "could have framed it in a way which distanced the source," notes Parry. "Which is what they did with all Iraqi sources. Why should we assume that what Donald Rumsfeld is saying is more reliable than what Iraqi sources are saying?" The Post's Loeb says, "We had three sources that she was fighting back," for the April 3 story. "They told us what was in their intelligence reports." But that was three different government officials confirming the substance of the same reports.
By now, of course, it's become clear that the story that government officials told reporters of Lynch's capture and the "daring" rescue was far from accurate. She did not fire her weapon, and she was neither shot nor stabbed. And according to news reports since mid-April from the BBC, the Times of London, the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Washington Post and others, Iraqi doctors at the hospital where Lynch was being treated report that Iraqi fighters had already abandoned the hospital and that hospital staff had even tried to return her to American forces well before the Special Forces swooped in. It was "like a Hollywood film," Dr. Harith al-Houssona, a physician at the hospital, told the BBC in a May 18 broadcast. "They shout, 'Go, go, go!', with guns and blanks...and the sound of explosions. They make a show...action moves like Sylvester Stallone or Jackie Chan...with jumping and shouting, breaking the door." And contrary to US reports that Lynch had been mistreated, hospital staff said they'd treated her as well as possible under wartime conditions.
To be sure, the reports from Nasiriya have conflicted as well. Keith Richburg of the Washington Post reported on April 14 that Iraqi doctors had told him the Iraqi military forces had fled the hospital on the morning of the Lynch raid, which suggests US forces might not have been sure they were gone. But by the time the BBC went to Nasiriya, witnesses told the network that special forces knew the Iraqi military had left the day before the rescue mission. But even if those facts remain unclear, there's little doubt that the US military offered up a version of the story that made Lynch and her rescuers look most heroic. "The American military obviously saw immediately what a great PR stunt this was. They played it for all it was worth," says Alan Hamilton, who co-wrote the London Times's initial story on the Lynch rescue.
Why were the American media so easily misled?
Although reporters won't say their editors pressured them into blowing up the story, it was clear that good war news was selling better. Fox News, which kept an American flag on its screen throughout the war and adopted the military's propagandistic war slogan "Operation Iraqi Freedom" as its own official news banner, was drawing more viewers than any other cable news channel. Slavin notes that when ABC finally went back in May to report on how the rescue looked to the hospital staff, "we got hundreds of calls complaining that we were undercutting the military."